There’s an odd trend at the moment for Japan’s two biggest third-party publishers to outsource their most-prized survival horror series’ to fledgling western studios. The results have often tended to be mixed: Capcom’s attempt at westernising Resident Evil last month proving catastrophic, with Operation Raccoon City’s disastrous dabble with third-person shooting ending up being more rotten drivel than the scare-fest shooter thrill ride the publisher once promised.
Reassuringly, though, Konami is no stranger to outsourcing Silent Hill. This is actually the fourth time the publisher has placed faith in an unproven western studio with its spook-tacular series, following Climax’s freakishly good double-outing with PSP/Wii spin-offs Origins and Shattered Memories, and Double Helix’s disappointingly average Silent Hill Homecoming.
Downpour, meanwhile, has been developed by Czech Republic studio Vatra Games. Heard of them before? Probably not. They’re the team behind last year’s low-scoring 2.5D XBLA side-scroller Rush’N Attack: Ex-Patriot and – well, not much else.
Nonetheless, they clearly get Silent Hill, even if it doesn’t become all that obvious until a fair way into the game. First impressions concern, with the game’s absurd opening act following new lead Murphy Pendleton slicing up a prison mate before escaping from the wreckage of a transport bus just outside the entrance to an abandoned mine shaft. Ninety minutes later and you’ll probably be ready to jump ship, the claustrophobic caverns being filled with so little vibe, so little scares and so little ‘Silent Hill’ that you could just be playing any old survival horror cliché.
But then Downpour suddenly finds its feet. Two hours after the initial start screen Vatra finally lets players off the reins, plunging them into the familiar foggy world of Silent Hill, and giving them complete freedom to explore the town’s dingy, daunting streets and abandoned buildings while being taunted by the developer’s eerily chilling atmosphere.
All the marks of a Silent Hill game quickly start to make a return – the maps and red marker pens; the Otherworld and alternate dimensions; dead dogs; acoustic guitars; old-school survival horror camera angles; the unnerving ambient sounds and an unsettling atmosphere, all rattled off of a checklist one after the other.
Linearity gives way to autonomy and exploration becomes encouraged through side-quests, with short side-stories gradually unfolding alongside the core narrative. Bigger, scarier enemies are progressively introduced – although none of which manage to shock as much as Team Silent’s original freak show, and it experiments semi-successfully with multiple types of horror – tension, claustrophobia, shock scares, paranoia, gore and the fear of the unknown all handled by Vatra surprisingly well, albeit lacking the unmistakable Japanese touch that made the originals quite so intensely disturbing.
And that – besides the slow-burning campaign and awkward combat – is our biggest grumble. Though Vatra has done most of the legwork in setting the scene of Silent Hill, it’s fumbled at the final hurdle, toning down the creepiness significantly and discarding the very essence fuelling the series. Sure, some scenes can spook, but they never genuinely terrify, and there isn’t a single monster that comes anywhere close to replicating the sense of fear provided by the presence of Pyramid Head, nor the overhanging dread provided by Silent Hill’s older, deadlier worlds. If you’ve ever seen both the Japanese and American versions of The Ring you’ll know which one was creepier – and it’s the same thing here.
A psychological horror classic, then, Downpour certainly is not, but in spite of its flaws, Silent Hill’s new direction is often clever, inventive, and nerve-shatteringly harrowing. It’s a different kind of trip to Konami’s ghost town than the one you might remember – a curious mix of Alan Wake and Silent Hill: Homecoming – but if you’re willing to embrace it for its differences, one just about worth taking.
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